The ocean has officially swallowed East Island, an 11-acre islet in the remote Eastern Pacific that served as a habitat for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Reported first by Honolulu Civil Beat and confirmed by HuffPost on Tuesday, East Island is the latest small landform in the Eastern and South Pacific to disappear due to extreme weather and sea-level-rise.
The second-largest islet in the French Frigate Shoals, East Island had long been threatened by rising seas. Its death blow, however, was Hurricane Wakala, a Category 3 storm that hit earlier this month. Storm surge effectively wiped out the sandy landmass, which was also a breeding ground for threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles.
Though Wakala’s path directly over East Island was simply bad luck, climate change likely played a role in the storm’s intensity. Wakala’s “strength and timing were consistent with the effects of a warming ocean and rising global temperatures that make storms more intense and frequent,” Honolulu Civil Beat noted. The storm was also a sucker-punch hurricane, rapidly intensifying from a 40 mile-per-hour tropical storm to a 120 mile-per-hour major hurricane in just 30 hours. Rapid intensification is a growing phenomenon associated with climate change.
East Island now joins a growing list of tiny Pacific islets swallowed by the sea. In Micronesia, two islands called Kepidau en Pehleng and Nahlapenlohd vanished in the last century, with six more going under between 2007 and 2014. Researchers have also documented the loss of five tiny land masses in the nearby Solomon Islands. Six more islands there have seen “large swaths of land washed into the sea,” The Guardian reported.
None of the lost islets so far have been inhabited by humans. But of the six partially-submerged land masses in the Solomon Islands, two contained villages where people were forced to relocate. The Marshall Islands are rapidly sinking as well. Fifteen percent of the population there has relocated to Arkansas.